Aboriginal art already hangs in my house. On tour in 2005, the last time I was here, I bought enough to share with family members. Prints, limited editions, small works of eels, watering holes, mimi spirits, goannas. Because at that time, I could not walk three blocks without seeing a boutique gallery specializing in the sale of indigenous art. And as a student of aboriginal culture, I owed it to myself to make this sacred energy a part of my housewarming.
Thirteen years later, finding this art it is like re-enacting a CSI episode.
In Brisbane, the hotel sent me to a gallery in Fortitude Valley that had only art I cannot afford. Another curator down the street from there explained that fraud trends closed down several shops. New policies on the sale of art have also complicated matters.
So in Melbourne, I head to the Koori Heritage Trust, cultural preservers of the First Nations population of south-east Australia. The facility has no art for purchase but sends me to a place called The Torch in St. Kilda.
Sarah, the woman who works there, is new. But in cosmic harmony, Kent Morris, the man who runs the place, walks in behind me.
I tell him about my art pursuit.
“You’ve come to the right place,” Kent says. “The Torch is a non-profit that uses art to support incarcerated indigenous men and women with opportunities for life after prison and income for their families while they are in prison.”
As he says more, I study a few gorgeous pieces in the lobby gallery of the small shop. One large, detailed one in particular stands out.
“That one is quite special and it’s here because we are preparing to photograph it for an upcoming book about The Torch,” Kent explains. “A Victorian ex-premiere, Jeff Kennett, saw it and wanted to buy it. When I told him that Victorian government policy prohibited prisoners from making money, even under these circumstances, he wanted to find out more about what The Torch did and is now chairman of the board.”
The circumstances are that while Indigenous Australians account for only 3% of the population—partly due to the attempted genocide they suffered on Tasmania and on the mainland—they comprise 28% of the nation’s prison population. Thus, they are the most incarcerated ethnic group or race on the planet per capita.
They are being put away not just for criminality that comes out of displacement from their homeland, or extreme need in neighborhoods rendered inhumane from resource reduction, or lack of consideration of domestic abuse during sentencing. They are also fifteen times more likely than whites to be convicted for swearing.
Kent peppers his lessons with references that suggest a personal connection to aboriginal culture. I try to infer, confused.
“My father was always worried about what might happen to me and my sister due to discrimination he faced as child. And I never understood the worry because we don’t look like him. But over time I learned that once people find out you’re Aboriginal at all, discrimination can follow.”
And this is when I understand. This white man before me is of direct Aboriginal descent. Suddenly, I see the clear features, more robust than narrow, the set of the eyes, the shape of the mouth. But of course anywhere in the world, this man would present as nothing other than white. Not fair-skinned. Not passing. White. We speak of being white adjacent in America. We understand the penalties of even black association (see the movie Mud for a well-executed, contemporary version of this). But I had never considered the penalties of black adjacency, and in this case I mean adjacent by bloodline, not by way of pursuit. Whereas proximity to whiteness in terms of skin color still affects ones station back home, Aboriginal people are so reviled from both racist and xenophobic places that Kent loses a massive chunk of his privilege the minute people learn his heritage.
I relate a recent conversation I had with a white Aussie who, after acknowledging the horrors inflicted on Aboriginal people, posited that countless social programs exist to ease indigenous transition into mainstream society. That Aboriginals are recalcitrant, combative and uninterested. Lazy.
“Did he mention that the condition is that you give up all of your beliefs, all aspects of your culture? You have to separate from your family permanently and bring nothing of your traditions with you.”
The answer is no, he did not. And what a civilized deal.
The ex-premiere helped Kent and his non-profit negotiate with the state government to alter the government policy so that these prisoners, most of whom were locked up for petty offenses in an effort to covertly extend holocaust, have a chance at life outside. The goal: that 100% of the proceeds from sales go to the artists directly. No split. No sharing. No cut for the prison system or the state.
How does Torch stay afloat?
Kent tells me as I comb through dozens of original and magnificent canvases that they have laid out for me to browse.
“Donors sponsor the 10% commission,” Kent explains. “We can at least raise this.”
I am beyond impressed.
There are scarves too, beautiful silk scarves made by an inmate at one of the women’s prisons. I must also budget for at least three, lest the recipient of one inspire some hateration from other loved ones.
Two hours later, Sarah notes that none of the work I select has been priced. She promises to gather the information as soon as she can.
In the meantime, I struggle to figure out what wall space can be cleared in my house…
For more on this and to see the art, please visit www.thetorch.org.au. If you look through the gallery, know that the pictures do this art no justice.